When you have young children, it can be easy to give up on going to restaurants altogether. Too much hassle. Too much uncertainty. Too much chance of the stink-eye from other diners.
But there are plenty of restaurants that roll out the welcome mat for families, and plenty of conscientious parents who enjoy eating out with their little ones, without incident.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, everyone is super-respectful,” said Gareth Croke, parent of an almost-3-year-old and a partner in the kid-friendly D.C. pub Boundary Stone and the pizzeria AllPurpose.
Of course, it doesn’t always seem that way; bad behavior and its consequences typically make for better stories and lead to more heated debate. Case in point: A “classy, intimate” Italian spot in North Carolina recently made national news when it banned kids younger than 5.
Still, there’s no need to stay home with your budding gourmand, especially if they’ve shown themselves inclined to try new things. Wherever you choose to go, try to consult with your kids. If they’re invested in the decision, they’ll be more likely to cooperate and have a good time.
We talked to parents, both inside and outside the restaurant industry, for tips on how to make eating out a great experience for everyone.
—It doesn’t hurt to call ahead.
The fact that restaurants are in the hospitality business means they should do their best to make all diners, regardless of age, feel comfortable. But there are certain times when you should alert a place that you’re bringing children.
One is if you will need equipment such as a high chair or booster seat, because restaurants often have limited supplies. Plus, the host stand can be ready at your arrival rather than having to scramble as you’re being seated.
It’s also a good idea to give the restaurant a heads-up if your child has any serious allergies, so the kitchen can be prepared or let you know whether it can handle dietary restrictions.
—Don’t assume you can bring your stroller inside.
Here’s another instance when calling ahead is useful, because not all restaurants have room to store your large stroller, and not all places make it easy (steps, narrow entryways, etc.) to even get one through the door.
For babies, you may want to consider a sling or other wearable carrier. For toddlers, an umbrella stroller that is lightweight and collapsible is a good option: Stow it under your table or at the coat check.
—Consider eating early or at off-peak hours.
“We try to dine out early before the bulk of the people get there,” said Tina Smith, who uses her Do DC With Kids blog to share some of the restaurant adventures she and her husband have with their 2-year-old daughter. That means eating lunch at 11 a.m. and dinner around 5 p.m.
If you must eat at the height of the dinner rush, as might be the case if you’re going out with a group that includes non-parents, make a reservation. This saves your kid’s patience for the actual meal, not waiting in line.
And if you want to eat closer to your kid’s bedtime, Croke suggests choosing a restaurant near home, where travel time is minimal.
—Noisy restaurants can be better for children.
You may want quiet dining rooms for a date night or other adult-oriented special occasion. Parents can use the din of a high-decibel spot to their advantage: At one recent dinner, Smith’s daughter decided to scream at the top of her lungs, but the place was buzzing loud enough that “no one noticed,” she said.
Despite best efforts, outbursts happen. Just try not to be somewhere that it’s the only thing your fellow diners hear.
—Have an escape plan if your kid’s not having it.
“I think if your child is freaking out, you have to take him outside,” said Fred Herrmann, father of a 9-year-old boy and vice president of operations for kid-friendly D.C. chain Ted’s Bulletin.
Be ready to act fast if things start going downhill. Take a fussy child outside or somewhere else in the restaurant a manager can direct you to, such as an unoccupied private dining area. You can also pivot and have your food packed to go.
Most people understand that even the best children can be unpredictable. You just have to know when to cut your losses. Smith said: “Being willing to bail is important.”
—When choosing a restaurant, look for food that will appeal to kids or a kids’ menu.
You’re likely to find an environment conducive to families at a restaurant that specializes in such crowd-pleasing fare as burgers, pizza and all-day breakfast. And places that offer food particularly for children are a good choice, because it shows they’re open to young diners.
—But don’t limit yourself to places with traditional kids’ menus.
“We learned that kids will eat a lot more than we give them credit for,” said Victoria Trummer, co-owner of Trummer’s on Main in Clifton, V irginia, and mother to 2 1/2 and 6-year-old boys. The fine-dining restaurant she runs with her husband, Stefan, once had a more traditional kids’ menu including a burger, chicken fingers and pasta, but “it didn’t feel authentic,” she said. So for the past few years, Trummer’s has offered a five-course “petit gourmand” menu, with such dishes as a plate of prosciutto, grapes and cheese, horseradish-crusted salmon and build-your-own sundaes. It’s gone over well with diners, she said.
As parents become more interested in healthful food, “the trick these days for operators is writing a kids’ menu that still has appeal to kids,” Herrmann said. Croke, for example, had his wife circulate drafts of Boundary Stone’s new kids’ menu to neighborhood moms, which is one reason sweet potato fries are a side option rather than traditional fries. Other more wholesome items on the menu include hummus with celery and carrots and an almond butter-and-honey toastie.
—Find places where the food is interactive.
After all, what’s more fun than playing with your food? Kids can enjoy scooping up Ethiopian dishes with injera, slurping ramen noodles or building bites with a charcuterie plate. Korean barbecue, Chinese hot pots and Japanese shabu shabu get kids involved in cooking their own food (if only they were so helpful at home, right?), but make sure your kids are at an appropriate age and temperament to listen to you and your nagging safety rules.
– Be prepared with distractions.
“If I don’t know the place, I’ll always bring some sort of toy,” whether it’s crayons or a train or truck, Croke said. Some restaurants have their own stash – Boundary Stone has crayons, Ted’s Bulletin keeps toys on hand – but better safe than sorry.
If you feel the need to give your kid an electronic device, make sure the volume is off, very low or only audible to the child wearing headphones. If you can have your child sit in front of a wall so that the glow isn’t visible to the rest of the dining room, all the better. But most diners would rather deal with the glow than a bored tot run amok.
Try not to use toys or electronics as a crutch for the whole meal. Herrmann said it’s a good idea to encourage conversation at least when the food shows up. Just like with trying new foods, if you raise the level of expectations, your son or daughter might rise to the occasion or even surprise you.
Find a place to be a regular, where the staff knows your kid and your kid knows them.
Like with many things with little ones, dining out takes practice. If you find a restaurant to frequent, the repeat visits can make for a more relaxing experience. Employees who are especially attentive may get your kids’ favorite dish ready as soon as you walk in the door or greet you personally.
Croke said he has a set of restaurants near his house that have become go-to spots for special dates: just him and his son.